Maybe Graham is auditioning to succeed Jeff Sessions as a more pliable attorney general. Or maybe he’s simply Machiavellian in the extreme; as Tommy Vietor, a former Obama aide, tweets, “When Obama first took office, [Graham] lived in Rahm Emanuel’s office,” referring to Obama’s first chief of staff. “He has no core beliefs. He just drifts in the political wind.”
The likeliest explanation is hiding in plain sight: Graham, like so many of his Republican brethren, suffers from a political disease that fellow South Carolinian Mark Sanford calls “fear of local folks.”
Most elected Republicans in Washington live in fear of the local folks, most of whom have pledged their fealty to Trump. The president’s takeover of the GOP is so complete that any dissenting lawmaker faces a hailstorm of Trump-tweeted abuse and, at worst, potential annihilation at the ballot box. Occasional Trump critics Jeff Flake and Bob Corker are leaving the Senate rather than risking being ousted by Trump-allied challengers in GOP primaries. Graham’s survival instincts are well attuned to political reality, particularly in one of America’s reddest states, where there’s virtually no downside to hugging Trump but hell to pay for defying him.
The fear of local folks is endemic in bluer states as well. Perhaps Susan Collins was genuinely happy with Kavanaugh when she cast her pivotal Senate vote and subsequently insisted that Christine Blasey Ford’s 100 percent certitude about Kavanaugh was simply wrong. But the political facts of life in Maine are unmistakable: If Collins had voted “no” on Kavanaugh, she likely would have faced a strong conservative challenge in a 2020 GOP primary, perhaps from Trump-allied Governor Paul LePage, who is currently term limited. Outside money from litmus-test Trump groups would have poured into the state. Collins may still have a tough reelection race, against a Democratic challenger bankrolled by progressive groups incensed by her Kavanaugh vote, but her odds of surviving a closed Republican primary may well have been worse.
Graham’s standing in South Carolina has been shaky for years. Long before Trump entered politics, litmus-test conservatives and talk-show hosts dogged his footsteps. They were infuriated that Graham hung out at the Obama White House and that Graham, on Meet The Press, praised Obama as “a good role model” and “an American just as much as anyone else.” Glenn Beck said that Graham was “Obama lite.” Rush Limbaugh, angered by Graham’s support for path-to-citizenship immigration reform (a stance Graham shared with McCain), nicknamed the senator “Grahamnesty.” In 2010, the anti-tax Club for Growth ranked Graham last among all Republican senators, which, to the state’s right-wingers, cemented his reputation as a Republican In Name Only.
Something else happened there in 2010, a portentous development for dissident Republicans everywhere. The rino hunt bagged a congressman named Bob Inglis. Inglis was a reliable rightist—a 93 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, a 100 percent rating from the Christian Coalition—and he’d represented his district for 12 years. But at a public event, early in what proved to be his final year, he was asked whether he believed humans caused climate change. He made the mistake of committing candor. He said yes, humans cause climate change. The crowd booed and hissed; as Inglis later recalled, “I was blasted out.” He was subsequently slaughtered in a Republican primary—71 to 29 percent—by a more conservative challenger named Trey Gowdy. The lesson of Inglis’s defeat was that any deviance from ideological fealty could kill a career.